You’ve no doubt heard the line “everyone’s a critic!” Our guest is one and thinks we should all be critics of the films, fine art, literature and other pleasures we indulge in. He will talk about why it’s good to be a discerning viewer of the arts, how to be a better critic, how criticism makes us see things in a different light and how it helps us become better at choosing those things in life that bring us beauty and pleasure.
- A.O. Scott, movie critic for The New York Times, author of the book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth
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16-12 Better Living Through Criticism
Gary Price: You’ve undoubtedly heard the expression, “Everyone’s a critic!” It’s usually when someone levels an unwanted complaint about something another person holds dear. Well, our guest thinks everyone should be a critic – that being one makes for a fuller, more interesting life. And he should know. He’s A.O. Scott, movie critic for the New York Times and author of the book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to think about art, pleasure, beauty and truth. He says “criticism” isn’t the same thing as just complaining or finding fault with something. It’s so much more than that…
A.O. Scott: Criticism is the conversation that we have about the things that matter to us. I think it’s what comes out of our experience of the works of art and the entertainment that we care about, that we consumer. It’s our way of thinking about it, interpreting, evaluating and arguing about those experiences that are so important and, in a way, so mysterious to us.
Price: Scott says that criticism starts with “I like” or “I don’t like,” and it moves on from there into why you feel that way and the justification for it…
Scott: If you walk out of the movie and you say, “Yeah, that was a pretty good movie,” and your friend says, “Really? That was terrible! I hated that.” And then you have to say, “Well, no, I liked it because blah, blah, blah.” And they come back with the reasons that they hated it. That’s when criticism is happening. It’s when those reactions, those feelings, those responses start turning into an argument where you start thinking about them and articulating them and reflecting on them.
Price: When he writes a critique of a film for the Times is it his job to educate the reader? To make them understand the nuances of the film and what makes it a good or bad movie?
Scott: I don’t think educate in the sort of a way of giving a lecture. I kind of imagine it more as, in a way, conducting a seminar, getting people to think and to argue and to continue the conversation among themselves or with me or with each other. But I’m hoping that my thinking about a given movie will encourage and maybe inspire other people to think as well.
Price: Being a critic of any art form, be it film, fine art, food or automobile design comes with an element of risk. Scott says that there have been times when he’s panned a film only to have the public embrace it. How do you reconcile that? Do you question your own opinions?
Scott: I tend to think, you know, how can everybody else be so wrong? That happens a lot, that movies end up being very popular with audiences or winning prizes. You know, and people sometimes say, “Well, you’re so out of touch, you’re so out of step, you’re so wrong,” but it’s part of the critic’s job to do that — to risk being wrong. To try to not necessarily think about what other critics are saying or what the public will say, but to put out as honest and clear and coherent a statement of our own views as we can that can stand there and sometimes to be vindicated. I mean, I think there are sometimes movies that are, you know, “in the moment” when they first come out, very, very popular that then the enthusiasm fades and people lose interest in them. Or movies that people ignore that flop at the beginning and then are rediscovered as great masterpieces.
Price: One film that Scott writes about in his book fell into that category. Director Howard Hawks’ 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. It was panned by New York Times film critic Frank Nugent. Scott says it was one of those times when a critic didn’t see the film for what it was, but was influenced by other films that came out around the same time…
Scott: I think that he was looking at Bringing Up Baby the way that I might look at an Adam Sandler movie, you know, that there are so many movies like this. Right now, there’s so many obnoxious, you know, raunchy R-rated comedies coming out – The Hangover, Bridesmaids – all of these movies that it’s very easy sometimes to just lump them all together and look at something and say, “Oh, this is another one of those.” And I think that’s what Nugent was doing in the 30’s. Bringing Up Baby came along and he said, “Oh, this is another one of these silly movies. You know, this one it has a leopard in it,” he found Katharine Hepburn really annoying and grating. And so he wrote this four-paragraph, just pan of this movie, like it’s just full of clichés, there’s nothing new, we’ve seen it all before and he moved on, and, in a way, missed it. He was so lost in the forest that he couldn’t see that particular tree, and how special it was.
Price: Of course, Bringing Up Baby is now considered a classic comedy, but Scott says it was up to later generations to discover it. He says that as a critic, you should always try to prevent yourself from judging something compared to what’s around it. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t find points of comparison between what you’re critiquing and other, similar, examples…
Scott: A lot of them fall into genres and sometimes that’s what makes them look clichéd and formulaic. I mean some of my favorite movies are boxing movies. This past year, one of my favorite movies was Creed. And you can look at that movie just at the level of its plot and say, “Oh, my god, we’ve seen this a hundred or a thousand times before, going all the way back to the 1930s.” You can look at this movie and say, “Well, there’s nothing new here.” And yet, at the same time, within those conventions of the genre it’s a, I thought, a wonderfully fresh and original and moving and exciting film. It’s useful to have a context, always. Movies don’t arrive in isolation, they’re related to other movies, they’re related to other works of art, they’re related to the real world. So, I think any context that you can invoke that kind of helps you and helps your readers make sense of a movie and what you’re saying about it is a good thing.
Price: What should we look for in art? When we go to a museum and see an Impressionist or Old Master’s painting, or attend the theater and see a play or a film, what is it that we’re supposed to find? Scott says that it should be something that speaks to our emotions… and surprises us…
Scott: What I hope is that some aspect of human experience that I hadn’t quite seen or thought about or understood before will be revealed to me. Sometimes a movie can tell a story in a way that I’ve never seen or thought about before. I mean, I think of the wonderful Pixar movie that came out last year, Inside Out, which was an extraordinary way of telling a story of the psychology and of the life changes of a 12-year-old girl which I felt like was teaching me stuff about emotions, about how the mind works that no book of neuroscience ever could. So I’m looking, I think, always for something that illuminates, in a way, what it is to be human. I kind of think that that’s the job of art to help us make sense of our condition in the world, which is very often strange and confusing and frustrating and exhausting and it’s like a little flash of light that says, “Oh, this is who we are. This is what we’re like. This is what I am.”
Price: We can’t all see every film, or go to every museum opening, and critics help us winnow down the selection of what’s out there so we can spend our time wisely. But how do you find a good critic? One that you can trust to give you the straight scoop on a book or film?
Scott: Trust is the key word. It’s not about agreeing all the time because no one can agree with anyone all the time. And I think it’s a matter as with all writers, because critics are writers, it’s kind of a matter of voice and temperament. You find someone whose work you like to read, who you feel you can kind of relate to from one week to another, whose taste makes sense to you. Even if you don’t necessarily share it you kind of get it. And I do think it is a relationship that, ideally, can develop over time. I’ve been at the New York Times for awhile now, for more than 16 years, and I hope that there are readers who trust me, who know where I’m coming from, who can read what I write and, whether or not they agree with it, whether or not they even end up going to see the movie, can find something that’s useful, and who also can maybe be entertained for a little while.
Price: So how should we approach art? How can we be good critics of those films, books and other things we observe ourselves?
Scott: I think it’s always great to have someone to talk about it with, whether that’s a critic who you can kind of read and talk about it within your head, or a companion, you know, a date, a friend, a group of friends. I think the thing about art that’s so wonderful is that it’s both a solitary activity that happens to us each one at a time, and also a collective and a social activity that we can all participate in together.
Price: You can learn how a critic thinks and how to become a better seer and critic of art and beauty yourself in A.O. Scott’s book, Better Living Through Criticism, available now in stores and online. You can find Scott’s film criticism at nytimes.com, and on Facebook and Twitter. You can find out more about all of our guests on our website at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.
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